Gene Gajewski

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A Canonical Canon

Pachelbel’s Canon is a famous classical music piece that I play with a least once a year just to marvel at. You’ve probably heard it a million times. Whenever an advertisement needs a classic and elegant musical touch, Pachelbel to the rescue! I got it at Jared’s! The reason I marvel at it though is because it is deceptive. It really sounds as if it is much more musically complex than it really is. It’s sneaky. It is both beautiful and simple at the same time.

This piece was written for three violins and basso continuo. Basically, as Wikipedia will tell you, basso continuo provides both a bass line and chord structure. This requires one or more instruments that can play a bass part as well as one or more instruments capable of playing a chord. What’s also cool is that a continuo part is sometimes left open to interpretation by the players of continuo part, much like jazz players do with their chord lead sheets. As long as you follow the chords, you can improvise if you wish.

In this instance, we have a cello playing the bassline, and a viola playing the chord part. I needed to go with a viola as the chords went just below the register of a violin. Although string instruments such as the viola are not capable of playing polyphonic chords, they can ‘fake it’ by playing the chord as an arpeggio and that’s exactly what is happening here. To make it more obvious, the ‘chord part’ viola is plucking the strings, pizzicato. But this isn’t the most interesting thing about the continuo part of this piece.

The most interesting fact of all is that is that the basso continuo part is only eight bars long, and those eight bars then repeat for the entire musical piece. It’s called an ostinato, a repeating part. That’s it! From the perspective of a MIDI composition and its representation in a DAW such as Cubase, I need only to ‘write’ those eight bars once – they can then be painted onto the DAW MIDI score again and again to repeat over and over. It’s just a fantastically simple musical device, this basso continuo. It really starts to make sense and you begin to think that maybe there really is a method to the madness of musical notation and composition!

Pachelbel’s Canon gets even better. Since it is a musical Canon, the melody is as deceptively simple as its continuo part. Although it seems that the violins are playing contrapuntal musical devices against the lead melody, it is really the lead melody played against itself. The lead is played three times with each iteration delayed by eight bars from each other! Those eight ostinato continuo bars (which compose and force a chord structure) really are the key to the entire piece and, once you realize that fact everything begins to click. A light bulb begins to glow.

Since we are locked into a repeating eight bar chord sequence, Pachelbel makes alterations in the lead melody every eight bars to give us variety. But variety, mainly in motif, or note rhythm, still must agree harmonically with the repeating chord structure. Because of that, the lead melody will agree, in fact has to agree with itself harmonically every eight bars.

The three leads are playing the exact same part, simply delayed. This piece starts with the basso continuo group for eight bars, then the continuo repeats and the first violin comes in. Next, the second violin comes in eight bars later, playing exactly what the first violin did earlier. Following this, the third violin comes in, doing the same. The musical device of a Canon is wickedly simple when seen from the vantage of the ten thousand foot altitude of a DAW. It is simply amazing that Pachelbel can keep this up using the same eight bars for nearly 6 minutes! Wow!

The Canon parts here are identical. That’s it. I need to create the melody but once. Using the DAW, I can simply create two more violin players to create the Canon, and then drag/drop that melody over to the new players, starting eight bars later for the second player, and sixteen bars later for the third player.

Have a listen.

Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo

The chord sequence here is is called a Romanesca, a chord formula commonly used in the 16th and 17th centuries. I have seen it called a ‘falling thirds’ or ‘descending thirds’ chord formula elsewhere on the web. In fact, in my earlier post, Elton John uses this very musical device in the refrain ‘ Laughing like children, Living like lovers‘ in the ending part of I Guess That’s Why they Call It The Blues. When you listen closely, you can hear pieces of Pachelbel’s Canon all over the place in modern music.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It… Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

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